QUEENSBURY -- Clifford Burns pleaded guilty to second-degree murder Thursday for the Christmas Eve stabbing death of his wife, admitting that he intentionally killed her in front of her daughters in a fit of rage.
In a hastily arranged court appearance, Burns was brought before Warren County Judge John Hall on Thursday morning and entered into a plea deal that will result in a 23-years-to-life term in state prison.
With his two teen-age daughters watching from the jury box, Burns admitted stabbing and killing Patricia Burns in her Lake Luzerne home last Dec. 24. The girls left court crying, and hugging other loved ones who were in court.
As he was escorted from court, Burns turned toward the girls and said, "I love you girls, okay?"
He was calm and soft-spoken, a far cry from the screaming, ranting maniac who was seen on hours of videotaped questioning by Warren County sheriff's officers after the killing. He answered Hall's questions with responses of "sir, yes sir."
Burns admitted stabbing his wife and intentionally killing her, but at first was hesitant to acknowledge the killing was intentional.
"I didn't do it intentionally," he told Hall.
After further questioning from Hall about his actions that night, he admitted he brought a knife with him to her home and that he ultimately did intend for her to die.
"In that last minute, when you got on top of her, that's when you intended to kill her?" the judge asked.
"Yes, sir," Burns replied.
He said he did not know how many times he stabbed her, and said he thought it was only once. Court documents show she was stabbed five time, and died from a punctured lung and lacerated liver.
Burns also offered something of an explanation that mirrored his statements to police, telling Hall, "There were a few issues. Child support, I hadn't seen my kids in eight months."
The self-employed logger told police he had gotten a call hours earlier about his child support payments being late and that he had been threatened with arrest because of it. The couple had a stormy relationship that included numerous prior arrests of Mr. Burns for various family offenses, including assault and criminal contempt.
Burns is to be sentenced May 13 at 1:30 p.m. He is being held in Warren County Jail without bail.
Burns, 46, was charged with second-degree murder for stabbing his 46-year-old wife to death in her 69 Route 9N apartment, and felony assault for injuries suffered by her adult daughter, 22-year-old Megan Jenkins, as she came to her mother’s aid. The couple's 14-year-old daughter, Autumn Burns, witnessed the attack.
The felony assault charge related to Jenkins was dropped as part of the plea deal. He is required to make restitution for her arm injuries, which required surgery, and has agreed to sign over a piece of property he owns to his daughters to satisfy the restitution.
Burns' lawyer, Wayne Smith, told Hall the he and Burns had gone over possible defenses to the charges, including "extreme emotional disturbance."
Smith had filed a notice in court indicating he planned to use an extreme emotional disturbance defense for the murder count, which could have resulted in his conviction for first-degree manslaughter instead of second-degree murder. He cited problems in their marriage, child support collection efforts, infidelities by Mrs. Burns and the fact Mr. Burns had not seen his children in months.
"Those issues have been thoroughly vetted," Smith told Hall.
Warren County District Attorney Kate Hogan said her office wanted to spare the family a trial that would require Jenkins and Autumn Burns to have to testify. The victims' family consented to the plea deal, which spared him two years from a possible 25-years-to-life maximum prison term for second-degree murder.
"Forcing the children to relive the horrors of that night was too big a price to pay for two additional years (in prison)," Hogan said.
Hogan said it appeared that Burns pleaded guilty to spare the children from having to testify.
Trial had been scheduled for June 16.
Smith would not say later Thursday what motivated Burns' guilty plea.
"It's just a tragedy for the whole family. That's all I can say," he said.
Hogan praised Hadley-Luzerne Central School for their assistance in the case.